Why you should care
Because filmmaking is all about crediting the creator, though history has largely forgotten this cinematic great.
Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.
When Thomas Edison and his assistant revealed their movie-playing Kinetoscope to the public in 1893, no one seemed to know that the first moving pictures had been shot several years earlier by an unknown inventor named Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince. He probably would have been well known by then, but in 1890, after boarding a train in France during the first leg of a trip meant to end in New York City — where Le Prince planned to reveal his movies to the public — he vanished without a trace.
In the mid-1880s, after pioneering work by inventors such as Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, among others, Edison believed he could surmount the last hurdle: to invent a single camera that could capture a series of individually framed photographs in rapid-fire succession. By the end of the 1880s he had filed several patents on ideas for motion-picture cameras, and soon he had successfully captured moving pictures. These early experiments, Monkeyshines No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, show blurred movements of a worker at Edison’s lab, but were followed by drastically improved techniques.
Meanwhile, Le Prince had been quietly creating a similar apparatus. Born in 1841 in Metz, France, he’d grown up hanging around the studio of his father’s friend, Louis Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype photographic process, and went on to study painting and chemistry. He began experimenting with photographs, and after he and his wife, Lizzie Whitley, had moved to New York, began working on moving pictures.
Soon he was filing his own patents, and by 1888 was shooting what might be defined as the first short movies, despite the fact that the images were exposed on paper. But Le Prince’s “movies” were never projected for an audience, and very few were aware they existed in his day, says Stephen Herbert, editor of A History of Pre-Cinema and Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Even so, a restored, enhanced digital version of Roundhay Garden Scene, which shows members of Le Prince’s family walking in circles in the yard, can be viewed as such now. Following this, Le Prince filmed a few moments of pedestrian and stagecoach traffic crossing a bridge in Leeds.
When we watch these experiments today, it’s from the other side of cinema history, like an animal whose eye blinks open for the first time to witness nothing more than a few moments in the lives of its makers. Le Prince spent the next few years perfecting his invention, even as Edison and William Dickson were just getting started on theirs. By September of 1890, he was ready to show the world. On the 16th of that month, while carrying luggage with his original films and patent plans inside, he said goodbye to his brother and boarded the train station in Dijon. Neither Le Prince, nor his luggage, were ever seen again.
The death of Le Prince’s son only adds another unsolved mystery to the list.
Conspiracy theories abound, mostly focused on rival inventor Edison, who filed his patent for a working movie-camera and viewer the year after Le Prince disappeared. Edison certainly wasn’t above stealing ideas. In a meeting with Muybridge, for instance, he’d dismissed the photographer’s idea to combine sound with Edison’s moving images, only to file his own patent for the idea soon after.
Of course this is a far cry from murder, and Edison’s and Dickson’s cameras were likely more advanced than anything Le Prince had come up with by 1890. Yet the death of Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, only adds another unsolved mystery to the list. In 1898, Adolphe was called to be a witness for the American Mutoscope Company in a lawsuit against Edison, regarding his claim to have invented the moving-picture camera; two years later, Adolphe was found dead from a gunshot wound on Fire Island, New York, where he’d gone duck hunting.
Another piece of the puzzle may have surfaced in 2003, when a photograph of a previously unidentified 1890 drowning victim was found among the Paris police department archives. The photograph looks a lot like the vanished inventor. But whether or not it’s Le Prince, we still know more about his experiments with moving-pictures than the end of his life.
“As far as his place in cinema history,” says Dr. Richard Howells of King’s College’s Department of Culture, Media, and Creative Industries, “it’s a case of ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’”
Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)